Over the last twenty years, the labour market has changed significantly. “More flexibility in the labour market” was the notion that heralded structural changes in the professional world throughout Europe as a response to the globalised economy. The sociologist Nina-Sophie Fritsch of the Vienna University of Economics and Business even speaks of tectonic shifts when talking about the changes in certain areas of the labour market. The consequences include increases in fixed-term employment contracts and freelance contracts, as well as the “Hartz” reform in Germany, which is still the subject of much controversy and debate today.
There is one factor, however, that is in complete contrast to these developments and has remained stable for 20 years: gender-segregation in the workforce. In Austria, in particular, this segregation is a conspicuous and pivotal feature of social inequality. In fact, the share of women in so-called male occupations in Austria even dropped by 4.8 per cent between 1995 and 2015. Most recently, the gender gap has been particularly striking in engineering jobs, for instance in electrical and telecommunications engineering, where the male share exceeds 94 percent. In contrast, the share of women in nursing and obstetrics was roughly 96 percent.
How is it that this gender imbalance not only remains extremely stable, but is even becoming more pronounced in some sub-sectors? In a project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, the sociologist Nina-Sophie Fritsch is devoting herself to this question. Over the past three years, Fritsch has studied the situation in Austria and compared the results to the European level. While she found occupational gender segregation in all European countries, she learned that it is particularly striking in Austria. “This can be explained, among other things, by a long-established traditional division of labour that is aligned to a traditional image of the family. One of the results is a comparatively long period of maternity leave for women,” Fritsch explains.
Early choice of career in Austria
Does that mean the numerous equality measures have fallen on completely infertile ground? And what does it mean for women, men and society as a whole? One observation Fritsch made in the course of gathering data is that many projects and gender mainstreaming measures target a very late stage, whereas young people in Austria make their career choice very early compared to other nations such as the Nordic countries. Setting the course for one's professional future at the age of 13 or 14, a phase of personality development and identity formation, is difficult. “At this young age, educational background and role models in one's own environment play an enormously important role,” says Fritsch, who is convinced that at this early stage young people lack the awareness of career opportunities opening up later or of the risk of poverty in old age, which hits women particularly often and hard. She points out: “The problem is not that there are women's and men's jobs, but the consequences associated with them.” Even in 2021, these consequences include unequal positions in hierarchies, unequal pay and unequal working conditions.
Obstacles to gender balance
The gender pay gap is a regularly published indicator which illustrates gender-related differences in earnings, showing how much less women earn on average compared to men. Again, at an income gap of around 20 percent, Austria is consistently found among the front-runners in the European comparison. Another indicator is the so-called concentration index. According to the investigations by Fritsch and her researcher colleagues, this index has increased by 13 percent for women in the past 20 years. This means that while the number of women employed has increased, they are concentrated in a just few professions. Most women work in commercial and personal service jobs or, as mentioned earlier, in the health and social sector.
Less pay and less status for women's occupations
That fact that income is lower in occupations that are predominantly filled by women also diminishes the prestige of these jobs and, in the long run, the value society assigns to them. This is another obstacle to mitigating gender segregation in the world of work. Men who are interested in typically female occupations such as kindergarten teacher are deterred by the low pay, but also by the lack of social status. “Women in male professions, on the other hand, are often considered to be less competent,” reports Nina-Sophie Fritsch. She gathered these insights in interviews she conducted with people working in gender-atypical professions as part of her ongoing study. The path to such atypical jobs often involves retraining at a later point in people’s careers and is motivated by the goal of pursuing their own (early) interests.
Lack of understanding for “atypical” career choice
The current analyses show that it is still difficult to cross the boundaries of occupational gender segregation. The corona pandemic has not only recently shone a spotlight on the scope of the existing inequalities, but will also exacerbate them further. “I was surprised by the fact that people still face a great deal of resistance when they choose 'atypical' professions,” notes Fritsch. Research provides yet another key figure that demonstrates the gender inequality in the world of work. Accordingly, more than half (55 percent) of all gainfully employed people in Austria would have to change their job in order to not only ensure gender balance in the labour market, but also to enable social and economic equality in society in the long run. This still seems like a very distant goal.
Nina-Sophie Fritsch studied sociology at the University of Vienna. In the context of a Hertha Firnberg Fellowship from the Austrian Science Fund FWF she is currently engaged in postdoctoral research at the Institute for Sociology and Social Research at the Vienna University of Economics and Business and at the University of Potsdam. Her research focuses on the labour market, poverty development in Europe, gender (in)equality and social inequalities. Running until 2022, her research project “Understanding occupational gender segregation” is funded by the FWF with roughly EUR 229,000.
Nina-Sophie Fritsch, Bernd Liedl, Gerhard Paulinger: Horizontal and vertical labour market movements in Austria: Do occupational transitions take women across gendered lines?, in: Current Sociology 1–22, 2020
Bernd Liedl, Nina-Sophie Fritsch: Die Mittelschicht in ländervergleichender Perspektive: Welche Rolle spielen Berufszugehörigkeit und Ländereigenschaften?, in: Mittelschicht unter Druck – Dynamiken in der österreichischen Mitte. VS Springer (im Erscheinen)
Nina-Sophie Fritsch, Roland Verwiebe, Christina Liebhart: Arbeit und Berufe: Veränderte Einstellungsmuster im Kontext eines tiefgreifenden Strukturwandels, in: Sozialstruktur und Wertewandel in Österreich. Trends 1986–2016. Wiesbaden: Springer 2019
Nina-Sophie Fritsch: Arbeitsmarkt, Berufe und Geschlecht in Österreich, SWS-Rundschau, Heft 3/2018